A new dusting of snow is the perfect time to go on an animal tracking scavenger hunt! Once you learn a few track patterns it is not hard to piece together the mystery of what these critters have been up to.
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The best part about animal tracking is that you don't have to be on a nature hike to spot tracks. In fact, the tracks I observed this week at my home in a rural area are similar to those you might find in a park, or other more populated setting. Songbirds, squirrels and even dogs and cats leave footprints behind in different patterns. If you observe closely, you can figure out what they were doing while they were out and about.
By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Bird Tracks Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
To prepare for an animal tracking scavenger hunt, you'll want to bring a few things with you. For winter, definitely bundle up, if you stay warm, the more fun you'll have! Some other items that are useful are a field guide, a ruler or tape measure and a notebook. You might also want to have a camera or a phone handy to snap some photos.
An excellent field guide to use outdoors, especially in winter, is Mammal Tracks and Scat: Life Size Tracking Guide by Lynn Levine and Martha Mitchell. I would particularly recommend this guide if you are tracking with children. As the tracks are life-sized they are easier to identify. Sometimes it is difficult for children (and adults too!) to envision the difference in scale on a small tracking card and an actual animal footprint. This book also gives diagrams of animal tracking patterns. This is very important, because sometimes a track has melted a bit and may not be as easy to identify, but you can look at the overall pattern to determine what it is instead. The best part of this book is that it is made of weatherproof paper, so it will hold up to any outdoor adventure!
Your state's wildlife or conservation office may have a printable tracking guide for you. These can be laminated or sealed with clear packing tape to make them more useful for winter tracking. Here is an example from the state of Massachusetts.
A ruler or tape measure and a notebook are useful if you plan on making observations on your trip. A weatherproof notebook like those from Rite in the Rain can help withstand soggy mittens!
If you are exploring with smaller children, rather than carry field guides and notebooks you might just bring along a tracking bandana. These have labeled images of tracks on them and can be worn while you walk.
There are three things to look for when tracking animals. The shape of the footprint, pattern of the track and gait pattern. The shape of the footprint can give you some information about the exact species you are tracking. The conditions have to be just right to get a really nice print where you can count toes.
If you can't tell exactly what it is, you can use the track pattern to help you. A squirrel or rabbit's tracks for example usually have the two front paws in the back, and the large feet in the front. A mouse's track pattern often has a mark where the tail drags.
|Squirrel Tracks- note the hind paw prints out in front.
|This gray squirrel was moving out in the open- see how far apart each track is? It was making big leaps! ©SBF 2016|
Other animal signs you might see while you're outside are scat, feathers, evidence of foraging on plants and other prints in the snow other than tracks. For example, you can see here the four prints left behind by a bird's wing feathers as it swoops down to grab something.
|Bird's wingtips. ©SBF 2015|
If you find some scat, it's always a fun opportunity to sing the scat rap!
Before You Head Outside
A book to peruse with children before heading out into the "field" for your exploration is Tracks, Scats and Signs (Take Along Guides) by Leslie Dendy. This guide is written for children and gives some of the basics. You might want to brush up on your skills with a field guide written for adults, like Scats and Tracks of North America.
My all time favorite book to read to kids during this time of year is Lindsay Barrett George's In the Snow: Who's Been Here? The illustrations are beautiful and it really inspires kids to search for clues in nature. Another great picture book for animal tracking is Who's Been Here? A Tale in Tracks by Fran Hodgkins, the story of a dog who goes on a tracking adventure and spies many different animal tracks.
Have fun tracking! We'd love to hear about what you find! Comment below, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message on our Facebook page.